It’s one of the best known sculptures in the world and perhaps has inspired legions of young girls to aspire to a career in ballet. But Camille Laurens’s book will cause many art lovers as well as dance fans to regard Edgar Degas’s masterpiece in a new light.
The Little Dancer Aged Fourteen acquaints us with the young girl who modeled for that famous sculpture. Marie van Goethem was a “little rat,” young girls who were recruited for the Paris Opera as young ballerinas who backed up the stars. But make no mistake, these girls were not living a dream; they were locked in a nightmare. Marie and the other girls were forced to practice for hours, often with little to eat while suffering with feet bloodied by the activity. They were paid a pittance and often had to supplement their wages by selling themselves to wealthy patrons of the ballet for any number of sexual favors. There was no salvation at home, either. Mothers often coerced their daughters into this life, seeing those wages as the only way to house and feed their families.
Marie earned extra money by posing for Degas for a sculpture that, in her time, was greeted with scorn and derision. “Almost all who saw it, sensitive and cultured as they were, reacted with horror to the Little Dancer,” Laurens writes. “This isn’t art! some people said. What a monster! said others. An abortion! An ape! She would look better in a zoological museum, opined a countess.”
Of course, no one asked Marie if she was willing to expose herself to such public humiliation. Certainly not Degas. In truth, Degas does not come off well in Laurens telling of The Little Dancer. He was a talented artist whose work not only endures, but whose paintings and sculptures (including reproductions of the Little Dancer), continue to sell for astronomical prices. There’s no evidence that he ever had sexual relations with Marie, or any other “little rat,” for that matter. But as he’s depicted, lurking backstage, watching these young girls, there’s something unsettling about his behavior. I, for one, will never look at another one of his paintings with the same feeling.
Yet the sculpture resonates with many women who identify with little Marie. Norma Jean Baker aka Marilyn Monroe, posed next to the sculpture in 1956 while she was filming Bus Stop. “The actress was thirty years old and already a star, but her face in the photograph, which is right up close to the little rat’s, has that pure, lost searching look that her fans know well, ” writes Laurens, noting that Monroe, like Marie was neglected by her mother. Another admirer, Misty Copeland, is the first African American ballerina to be named a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater. Copeland came from a large poor family and was raised by her mother, living on social welfare.
Laurens book is well researched and draws on many sources. It’s an absorbing read.
Top Bigstock Photo: Four Dancers by Edgar Degas- oil on canvas c. 1899- this was shot on 7-31-07 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.